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Subsidence needn't leave you with a sinking feeling

What to do if you think your home is affected by subsidence

A model house sinking in sand

Like Cruella de Vil at a puppy party, subsidence is not something you want knocking on your door. Just hearing the word strikes fear into most homeowners.

If you think you may have a problem with subsidence, take action now. Read this guide to find out what causes subsidence and how your home insurance can help you get it sorted.

With a few home and garden maintenance tricks and the right type of home insurance, subsidence needn't leave you with a sinking feeling.

What is subsidence?

Subsidence is when the ground beneath your property sinks because the soil is unstable. LV= defines it as downward movement of the ground supporting the building.

There's also another type of ground movement you may see highlighted in your home insurance documents, called 'heave'. This is when the ground beneath your property swells and causes your property to move.

Buildings insurance should cover your property for both subsidence and heave.

But don't panic, relatively few houses actually subside. New homes are often prone to a period of 'settlement', this is different to subsidence. This is when the weight of the house settles into the foundations during the first few years and can sometimes cause the plasterwork to crack.

What causes subsidence?

The four main causes of subsidence are:

  • Clay soil shrinking following long spells of dry weather
  • Trees and other vegetation taking moisture from the soil causing it to shrink
  • Leaking drains, which wash away the subsoil below your foundations
  • Mining activity

How will I know if my property is subsiding?

Cracks are the most obvious signs of subsidence. Not every crack is a problem, but look out for distinctive diagonal cracks that appear at the edges of windows and doors. They are usually wider at the top than the bottom and can be quite noticeable.

The cracks can appear inside and out and run down past the damp proof course of your home to the foundations. You may find that they appear after there's been a long spell of dry weather.

Another telltale sign to look out for is doors start to stick and windows that don't close properly. Or doors and windows that fit in the winter, but not the summer.

Not every crack is a problem, but look out for distinctive diagonal cracks that appear at the edges of windows and doors.

What you can do to prevent subsidence

Apart from moving to a different part of the country or doing a little rain dance, there's not much you can do to escape dry clay soil. But there are things you can do to manage the risk of subsidence.

If there are trees and large shrubs, like wisteria, for example, planted close to your house, make sure you prune them regularly. For trees with a high water demand, their capacity to dry the soil can extend out as far as the tree is tall.

With large well-established trees, it's best to call in professional tree surgeons to manage their growth. This could prevent the tree from being cut down completely in the future.

Water pipes and guttering should be checked regularly to make sure they're not blocked or leaking. This is especially important for older properties where tree roots have been known to grow through clay pipes.

Making an insurance claim for subsidence

If you think your property is subsiding, the first thing to do is contact your buildings insurance provider. The quicker you deal with the problem, the better.

The first thing the insurer needs to do is check that the damage is due to subsidence. This is not always immediately obvious and can sometimes take several months to resolve.

A structural engineer is usually sent to your property to assess the damage and decide the best course of action. This can involve a period of time where the property is monitored to see how much it moves and what's causing the movement.

When the assessment is complete, the engineer will recommend what needs to happen next. Only in extreme cases does the house need to be underpinned. This is where 'pins' of concrete are made underneath the existing foundations to support them.

Before any work begins, you'll need to pay any excess stated on your home insurance policy. There's usually a compulsory excess for subsidence work, which can often be more than the voluntary excess you agree when you take out your policy.

Once the work is agreed and the excess paid, the insurance company will cover the cost of the work and often the cost of moving to an alternative property if you need to move out whilst the work is happening. After all, that's what buildings insurance is for.

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